There’s nothing quite like waking up feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Whether it’s getting back to a normal routine after the excitement of a new baby or recovering from a long day at work, sleeping well helps us get the most out of life. In fact, researchers are now discovering that good sleep is just as important for our health as eating, drinking and exercise.
During a good night’s sleep, the brain moves through 4 to 5 sleep cycles. Each cycle includes REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the stage of sleep when we dream. During this time the brain patterns most closely resemble those of an awake person.
In addition to the restorative functions of sleep, slumber also plays an important role in memory formation. Sleep appears to consolidate memories by helping the brain clear away cellular debris, which is important for maintaining healthy brain function and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other important functions of sleep include regulating blood pressure, repairing muscles and tissue, releasing growth hormones and proteins, supporting normal immune function and reducing the effects of stress. Studies show that people who get enough sleep are healthier and have a lower risk for a number of health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, diabetes and more.
For centuries, people have thought of sleep as a time when the body completely shuts down and takes a break. However, this is no longer the case. As soon as you close your eyes and drift off to sleep, the brain’s electrical activity shifts into a pattern known as alpha wave activity, which is a more relaxed state. As you become more deeply asleep, this pattern gradually changes into slower theta wave activity, and then finally into delta waves, which are the deepest stages of sleep.
This cycle of brain activity repeats during each of the sleeping cycles. The exact duration of each phase varies from person to person, but on average adults need about seven hours of sleep each night. Children and teenagers require more sleep than adults, while babies need even more.
Despite these essential functions, sleep problems are common in our society. Many factors can contribute to poor sleep, such as a busy schedule, caffeine and other stimulants, hot flashes and other menopause symptoms, medicines and stress, which can all interfere with the ability to fall and stay asleep. Fortunately, there are ways to help get the most out of your sleep, such as going to bed at about the same time each night and avoiding caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants right before you go to sleep.
Taking steps to improve sleep can make a big difference in how you feel throughout the day and how you function as a woman living with a mental illness. To learn more about how to improve your sleep, speak with your healthcare provider. You may benefit from discussing your concerns with a sleep specialist, who can ask more detailed questions and even conduct an overnight sleep study to monitor you in real time.